Some lists keep growing, and others come to an end
(published 12-28-06)

Seeing a bird for the first time is a great feeling, so I can understand why it leads some birders to do the “life bird dance.” I’ve never actually seen this performed, but I picture it looking something like a sandhill crane’s courtship ritual—interesting, but not terribly graceful.

My own ritual following a first-time sighting is to make a hand-written entry in the birdwatcher’s logbook I’ve been using for about a dozen years. I keep a master list on my computer hard drive too, as a back up, but that’s just a bunch of bird names without any details. The log contains all the meaningful stuff, and it would be one of the first things I’d reach for if my house was burning down.

I didn’t travel much in 2006, so my life list was stuck on 450 species all year. That is, until October 29. That day I drove to the Chicago lakefront in search of my first snow bunting, a bird I’d been pursuing for years. I knew from Internet postings that my chances were pretty good. Migrating snow buntings were reported on Montrose beach for several days leading up to my visit.

Within two hours of arrival I had the bird. Several small flocks of snow buntings were swirling around that morning, and fortunately I spotted a solitary bird foraging on the ground, affording me a nice long look in perfect light. It wasn’t easy, but I resisted the temptation to dance.

I made slightly better progress with my yard list in 2006, adding two new species. The first of those, a common yellowthroat, was No. 100. Of all the lists you can keep, I think the yard list is the most personal and possibly the most rewarding. It’s your property after all, so feeding, habitat creation and identifications depend on your efforts alone. For me, seeing an uncommon bird in the yard is more satisfying than seeing that same bird in the field.

I’m not a chronic lister (I swear!), but I do have a few other favorite lists. One is for Florida, where my parents live most of the year. I try to add a few species whenever I’m there. The list benefited substantially from a birding festival I attended in Tampa a few years back, a trip to Dry Tortugas National Park and multiple visits to the Everglades.

Sadly, some lists come to an end. It happened this year when my in-laws sold their home at Kiawah Island, S.C. We had the good fortune to visit there for many years, and during those times I saw some amazing birds, many of them “lifers.” Painted buntings love it at Kiawah, and I loved watching them. I’ll keep my Kiawah list on file in case we ever go back, but for now it’s officially retired.

I blame Donald Trump for another favorite list that ceased to be. Sapsucker Court was the unofficial name for a little downtown Chicago plaza between the Wrigley Building and former Sun-Times Building. I walked through it every morning on my way to work and kept close track of the birds, growing my list to 66 species. Now the courtyard is gone, blown up to make way for The Donald’s massive condo tower now under construction. Too bad—not for me, for the birds. I’m hopeful that some decent green space will be restored once the project is complete.

You can enjoy birding without keeping lists, just like you can enjoy golf without keeping score. In my opinion, though, the ritual of list-keeping is part of the fun. Dancing is optional.

Copyright 2006 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.